- Thomas Egerton, 1st Viscount Brackley
Early life, education and legal career
Thomas Egerton was born in 1540 in the parish of Doddlestone,
CheshireFact|date=February 2007. He was the illegitimate son of Sir Richard Egerton and an unmarried woman named Alice Sparks. He was acknowledged by his father’s family, who paid for his education. He studied Liberal Arts at Brasenose College, Oxford, and received a Bachelor’s Degree in 1559. He then studied law at Lincoln’s Innand became a barrister.
He built a respectable legal practice pleading cases in the Courts of Queen’s Bench, Chancery and Exchequer. After Queen Elizabeth I saw him plead a case against the crown he was made
Queen’s Counsel. In 1579 he was made a Master of the Benchof Lincoln’s Inn. On June 28, 1581he was appointed Solicitor General. He married Elizabeth Ravenscroft and fathered two sons and a daughter by her.
Solicitor General, Attorney General and Master of the Rolls
As Solicitor General, Egerton became a frequent legal advocate for the crown, often arguing cases instead of the Attorney General. He was one of the
prosecutors of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1586. He was also the prosecutor in the trial of Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, for high treason. He was made Attorney General on June 2, 1592, he was knighted the next year. He was made Master of the Rollson April 10, 1594where he excelled as an equity judge and became a patron of the young Francis Bacon. After the death of the Lord Keeper Puckering he was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and made a Privy Councillor on May 6, 1596, remaining Master of the Rolls and thus the sole judge in the Court of Chancery. During this time his first wife died, and he married a widow, Elizabeth Walley (née More)
Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor
As Lord Keeper, Egerton’s judgements were admired, but Common-law judges often resented him reversing their decisions. He also attempted to expand the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery to include the imposition of fines to enforce his injunctions. In the 9th Parliament of the reign of Elizabeth (1597-1598) he supported legal reform and the royal power to create monopolies.
Sir Thomas was a friend of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and often interceded to mend relations between Essex and the Queen. After Essex returned from
Irelandin disgrace he was placed in the Lord Keeper’s custody. He was one of the judges at Essex’s first trial, and tried to persuade him to apologise and beg mercy from the Queen. He pronounced the sentence against Essex, though it was dictated by the Queen. During Essex’s rebellion, he was sent to persuade Essex to surrender, but was instead held hostage for several hours until one of Essex’s supporters freed him to gain pardon from the Queen.
In 1599 his second wife died, and in 1600 he married Alice Stanley (née Spencer) the widow of the Earl of Derby.
When James VI of
Scotlandsucceeded to the throne of Englandas James I he kept Egerton in office, and made him Lord Chancellor and Baron Ellesmereon July 19, 1603. He was removed from the office of Master of the Rolls on May 18, 1603, but as the office was granted to an absentee Scottish Lord he continued to perform its duties. He shortly after presided over the trial of Barons Cobham and Grey de Wilton for high treason for their part in the Main Plot.
In the first Parliament of James I Lord Ellesmere attempted to exercise the right of the Lord Chancellor to disqualify members from sitting in the House of Commons, but in the end yielded that right to the House itself. He attempted to persuade Parliament to support the King’s plans for a union of England and Scotland, but was unsuccessful. In 1606 he ruled that Scottish subjects born after the succession of James I were naturalised English subjects.
Towards the end of his life, Lord Ellesmere supported the
Royal Prerogativeagainst the arguments made by Sir Edward Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, and ultimately aided the King in securing his dismissal. He attempted to resign several times after this, as he became increasingly old and infirm, and the King finally accepted his resignation on March 5, 1617, after creating him Viscount Brackleyon November 7, 1616. He was promised the earldom of Bridgewater, but showed little interest, and died twelve days after leaving office on March 15, 1617. He is buried in Dodleston, Cheshire.
Campbell, John. "Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, From the Earliest Times Till the Reign of King George IV." Fifth Edition. London: John Murray, 1868.
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